Education in Korea Today

“Entrance Exam Hell”, Trauma Lasting a Lifetime

Wounds Left by a Competitive Education System

Competition over the college entrance exam in Korea shows no sign of improvement, and instead seems to intensify day by day. Under this highly competitive education system centered around the entrance exam, Korean students are experiencing a great deal of physical and mental suffering. For students, the attitude of viewing others as competitors and comparing themselves to others is ingrained into their brains to the point of being a habit, traumatizing them for the rest of their lives. Professor Pak Noja at the Oslo University in Norway points out the problems of education in Korea today from his own viewpoint.

Vladimir Tikhonov (Pak Noja, Oslo University)

“The Entrance Exam”, the Collective Trauma of Koreans

Because of our highly developed brains, humans are deemed to be highly adaptable, but at the same time, they are also psychologically vulnerable. Particularly, the psychological wounds inflicted on them at a sensitive young age would haunt them for the rest of their life in many cases. The memories associated with fear and other negative emotions are stored in the part of the brain called the amygdala, and it is nearly impossible to ever change or erase these memories. For example, people who have experienced bullying during their childhood, like I have, keep reliving the terrible scenes of bullying in their nightmares; those memories of being bullied remain in the amygdala.

These are individual traumas, and there are also collective traumas. Daily activities in a “normal” society, as well as wars, massacres, and states of panic, can give rise to collective traumas. For example, a survey by the American Institute of Stress reported that 80% of the surveyed employees were suffering from workplace stress, and 40% were “exposed to extreme stress”. In addition, 14% of the respondents said they often felt the urge to hit their colleagues. As can be seen in the survey results, a “battlefield-like workplace” where workers can be dismissed without a proper reason and provided with no protection of rights is a source of collective trauma. Would it be surprising if a shooting incident took place at the workplace in a country where a lot of people feel a surge of adrenaline at the mere thought of their office?

The 70-year history of Korea after liberation is dotted with incidents that caused massive collective traumas, from the Korean War to the IMF crisis. Most of the Korean men who fell victim to compulsory military conscription during the 70s and 80s, especially those who were forcibly drafted during their college years, say that they have had a nightmare about being taken back to the military at least once. Many of them repeatedly have such nightmares. Militaries where violence prevails have become the soil where collective trauma takes root. Although violence in the military has decreased since 2000, the traumas of such violence still linger in the minds of the victims.

There is another massive collective trauma that can be seen, with no exaggeration, as a trauma that all Koreans are suffering from. The trauma is growing more severe, rather than weakening, as time goes by. It is “entrance exam trauma.”

The Soil in Which Eternal Traumas Grow

Negative experiences, as well as positive experiences, are also required for individuals to feel they belong to a group. In addition to high school graduates entering college, anyone who has attended school in Korea is likely to have experienced “studying hell”, if not “entrance exam hell”, due to the competitive education system. So, in a sense, their experience of “studying hell” where they competed with others over getting higher grades or performing better on their entrance exam has turned into a sort of “requirement” for every Korean to meet to belong in society. As such, “studying hell” has become a rite of passage to become a true Korean. The problem is that this experience is, at the same time, the soil in which traumas are grown that can haunt individuals with nightmares for the rest of their lives.

I have talked with dozens of Koreans who have experienced this entrance exam-oriented education. Through a comprehensive analysis of their experiences with preparing for the entrance exam, I found the following common characteristics.

First, they have very clear memories of physical pain. Being kept sitting at their desk for so many hours every day and lacking exercise were among the major causes of their pain, but the most terrible thing—close to a sort of torture indeed—was sleep deprivation. According to the “2017 Report on the Human Rights of Korean Children and Adolescents” by the National Youth Policy Institute of Korea, high school students in the country usually sleep 6 hours and 10 minutes a day. This is much less than the sleeping hours of youths in all of the other OECD countries. Even in Japan, where students face great stress over studying, teenagers sleep an average of 7 hours and 42 minutes a day. So, there is no point in comparing Korean teenagers with their American counterparts, who sleep for more than 10 hours every day. However, most of the people with “entrance exam hell” experiences that I talked to told me that they had only slept an average of four hours a day during their exam preparations. In essence, this degree of sleep deprivation in teenagers, who require more sleep than adults, is virtual “torture”. Adolescents who have long been exposed to such experiences show symptoms of distrust and hostility to older generations, chronic fatigue, depression, and an inexplicable sense of fear.

Second, the worst emotional distress that they commonly experienced was a sort of resentment against their parents, although the degree of severity differed from person to person. Some of them said that they would not be able to forgive their parents, who used to react to a drop in their grades with scolding and violence. In situations where the parents have to supervise or manage the studying of their children for the entrance exam, feelings of resentment in the children, who are suffering from sleep deprivation and other pains due to the studying, is directed towards their parents.

Third, the stress coming from the comparisons and competition may captivate them and linger in their minds forever. In Oslo, students study not to obtain high grades or degrees, but to fulfill their interests. However, Korean students who have experienced “entrance exam hell” tend to gauge whether their efforts would put them in an advantageous position relative to their classmates, even after coming to Oslo. They unwittingly compete with others while studying, and furthermore, they view their lives as a sort of battle, which indicates that this point of view has become a habit imprinted on their brains, much like how I find myself overwhelmed by the fear that I felt as a boy again whenever I see juvenile delinquents. This is what the sense of fear and stress engraved into our amygdala does.

As such, “entrance exam hell” is a collective trauma and a calamity that all Koreans share today. The experience of cutthroat competition over the college entrance exam, which has become a rite of passage in their lives, is another form of violence that creates victims, devastates their bodies and minds, and inflicts on them a trauma that lasts for the rest of their lives. The standardization of colleges, the elimination of discrimination based on educational background, and the abolition of the current competitive entrance exam system altogether should be the goals that education in Korea today pursues.

Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov)

Pak majored in Korean history and received a Ph.D. in the history of Gaya at Moscow State University. Currently, he is professor of the history, society and politics of Korea and North Korean studies at the University of Oslo. Whenever he explains the problems of education in Korea, including the ranking of universities, in the Norwegian language, which has no such expressions as "a prestigious university", he feels shame and sadness at the same time. Pak dreams of a future where children can live happy and free from discrimination based on educational background, “entrance exam hell”, and a rigid disciplinary upbringing. He has one son and one daughter and is always faced with various educational problems in his daily life.